Blockchain beyond the hype with Blocklab

At Rotterdam-based BlockLab it’s all about turning blockchain technology into practice. Promising collaborations with renowned parties involved in harbor logistics and energy should make blockchain visible to the public.

A little more than a year ago BlockLab was founded by the Rotterdam Port Authority and the city of Rotterdam. This was just before the blockchain hype, mainly caused by the craziness around altcoins such as bitcoin, reached its peak. ‘Of course, we’ve benefited from this attention’, says Aljosja Beije (46), logistics lead at BlockLab. ‘It also led to all kind of wild tales. Blockchain would even bring us world peace.’ According to Beije, an important explanation for the many awkward ideas is that the technology is still in its infancy. ‘It is very important to find out what blockchain can and cannot do.’

BlockLab focuses its activities on the energy and logistics sector. This is no random choice, as the largest port in Europe is in the city’s backyard. The small company operates as a field lab. This means it’s investing in two things: community and platform building and the development of uses cases. The latter is always in collaboration with a consortium of companies. ‘We’re not an ordinary software company’, Beije states. ‘Our goal is to develop really cool applications, beneficial to both port and city. Not just for a single client.’

Prototyping

The start-up had a head start. Beije, who has a long track record in international logistics, has been involved in blockchain since 2013. Currently, he’s conducting a PhD research project at Politecnico di Milano on the impact of the technology on supply chain management objectives. His BlockLab partner Janjoost Jullens knows all about what’s happening in the creative vanguard and how to connect people and organizations.

So far, both men celebrated a number of successes. One of them concerns the working blockchain prototypes they presented last spring for a rapidly changing energy market, developed by four consortia. Two are now working on their minimal viable products which are expected to be presented by the end of this year. All projects are made possible via the Small Business Innovation Research tender (SBIR).

Applying blockchain in the energy market was a more than logical step, according to Jullens, energy lead at BlockLab. Especially because it’s becoming less likely that our electricity will come from a sole power station in the near future. ‘The energy market is becoming more and more decentralized. Think of wind farms, solar panels on rooftops, windmills on farmer’s land. When many new parties close transactions and exchange data, the use of this technology is obvious.’

Same goes for the logistics side, since logistical chains are usually very decentralized. ‘To get a container from China to Rotterdam, sometimes you have to deal with forty parties’, says Beije. ‘No one has a really dominant position. So, how do you ensure that companies work together and trust each other?’ The company worked on three proof-of-concepts in 2017 and two business cases this year.

Common problems

Blockchain is extremely suitable for transferring assets to a new owner under certain conditions and in a safe manner, both men state. In logistics this can be helpful when there’s no dominant party involved, like Heineken, Adidas or Nike. These companies are known to unilaterally impose their way of handling goods upon others. It’s how they structure the logistical chain. However, most chains consist of a large number of SME companies. Beije: ‘For the majority of them it’s very difficult to be innovative. There’s is a lack of knowledge, expertise, but above all: money. With BlockLab we want to make innovation possible, by defining a common problem and then solve it together.’  

Seven people currently work at BlockLab, five of whom are developers. Including employees of partnering companies, about fifteen people are developing blockchain applications. Their number is likely to increase, given the promising projects announced.

BlockLab is very hopeful that blockchain will catch on in Europe’s biggest port. ‘I hope people eventually end up in Rotterdam when they search online for blockchain plus logistics or energy’, says Beije. ‘That we will draw the interest of startups and companies that really want to experiment. Because they know it’s happening here, in more fields than blockchain alone.’